The Hell Screens
"Art borrows the form of warfare," says Cheng-Ming, the Chinese American who narrates much of The Hell Screens by Alvin Lu. Fair enough—conflict drives all successful stories—but it's an implication that proves unsettling. The conflict in this intricate first novel unfolds in ghostly territory, where one Westerner struggles to understand the enigma of Asian culture.
At first, the story appears to belong to the suspense or detective genres, but eventually this guise is discarded. The hero, Cheng-Ming, is an expatriate American living in Taipei, Taiwan, a bustling city knotted with ancient temples and reminders of its colonial past. He collects tales of the supernatural, an effortless search, for despite their modern sensibilities, most of the residents he encounters reveal a sometimes reluctant affinity for avenging spirits and omens, if only for the otherworldly knowledge that will fatten their stock portfolios.
Meanwhile, a serial murderer-rapist known only as K is on the loose. He's an Asian Jack-the-Ripper who fascinates the public because of his elusiveness and daring exploits. So widespread is K's fame that all murders are starting to be attributed to him, as in the case of an elderly man poisoned to death in a hospital. Despite the questioning of more likely suspects, K is blamed for the crime. "The whole thing didn't seem at all K's signature. Yet K has made his mark, probably without being involved."
Cheng-Ming meets a young student, Sylvia, who claims to have once been K's lover, but he's sure she's mistaken. He returns to his apartment, located in a haunted building, only to dream that K has invaded his room.
Later, his room is invaded in waking life by an exorcist and Fatty, the Buddha-like neighbor who roams the hallways with a camcorder, hoping to record proof of the afterlife. An exorcism is performed—before the lens—to appease the recent suicide of another neighbor. The exorcist and Fatty prickle Cheng-Ming with their assertion that he's too Western to understand their beliefs.
As suggested by the camcorder's presence, direct experience matters. The rest of the story documents the breakdown of Cheng-Ming's Western psyche through a series of notebook entries recorded during the seventh lunar month, traditionally the time when spirits walk the earth. His continual difficulty with his contact lens is transmuted into a compelling metaphor for the dissolution of his observer status.
In an odd moment, Sylvia washes his lens with her saliva and tea. Afterward, Cheng-Ming perceives the world anew—not only does he penetrate K's aura but, in several exquisitely surreal scenes, he encounters spirits. This openness to the hidden side of Asian culture also leaves Cheng-Ming vulnerable to ghostly possession, although it's unclear by whom.
Here's where the story begins to falter. It should have more sharply rendered, awakening us to the possibility of a new world order after this cross-cultural immersion. Instead, the implications of Cheng-Ming's experience—and K's pervasive influence—remain ambiguous.
Just as maps play an integral part in warfare, so does the role of place in storytelling, if we are to fully understand the characters. Here Lu brings his descriptive powers to bear, succinctly creating an island metropolis caught between old and new, as seen through Cheng-Ming's camcorder-like gaze: "Below, the city spun, black waters still flowing through intersections, blocked by floating detritus, bicycles, laundry, lumber, plants, telephone wires. Side streets, full of wandering spirits set free by the wind, became death traps for drivers and passengers caught unawares in slow traffic."
Ultimately, the novel's suspense lies in the shift of narrative voice to a completely Asian one. A subtle change in key, perhaps, but those who seek a finely rendered experiment should read The Hell Screens. Others who prefer a linear tale will probably feel disappointed with the book's obliqueness.